18 November 2013

Learning to think differently

"Lock them up and throw away the key." I've heard that line too often, and it has been an overused refrain in the American system of corrections. Two recent articles would have us think differently, but it means we have to look beyond our own borders (and think outside the box!) to gain some new perspective.

Take a look here for a look at what's happening in Europe.

And what happens if you have a jail with no one to put in it? Look what Sweden is doing here.

I find these somewhat ironic because the jail in my town--bright spanking new--but whole sections of it aren't used. They can't afford to staff it, and a number of officers have been laid off due to budget cuts. The city doesn't even house its own people in there. Instead, it contracts with smaller and cheaper jails in the neighboring cities.

And then there's the brand new jail built on the Native American reservation that looks nice on the outside, but they don't have the funds to run it. What are people thinking??

01 November 2013

The Saints Among Us

On the eighth floor of the jail Tuesday, I met with a man. His wife had died last Saturday. He needed to talk. He was feeling bad about being in jail and away from her. 

Early in October, Dave and Olga came from Nanaimo in Canada to Seattle, on their way to Fort Lauderdale in Florida, to take a cruise in the Caribbean. It was a last fling. Olga had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was getting sicker. In fact, she had no control of her hands and arms. One last trip, they thought, then they’d face her final months together.

But in Seattle, Dave was arrested. Turned out there was a warrant for him out of Alabama, for breaking his probation almost thirty years ago. Dave went to jail. He was going to have to wait to see if Alabama wanted him.

Olga went to a local hospital. She wasn’t sick; she was managing the ALS, but without Dave, she didn’t have a caretaker and she did need care.

“All I know,” Dave said, “is that she got home. Someone escorted her to Victoria. Then she died at home with a friend with her.” He wanted to find out who had taken his wife to Canada. He knew it was someone from a local parish, but that was all.

I said I’d try to find out. With the name of the hospital, I started making calls. The chaplain didn’t answer, so I left a message.

A call to a woman who works in the diocesan Pastoral Care office pinned down the name of the parish close to the hospital. I called St. Francis of Assisi parish. I laughed when a long-time friend answered the phone. She works as the receptionist. I explained I was looking for someone from their parish who might have helped a woman get back to Canada.

She didn’t even let me finish my question.“That’s Frances!” Frances was over in the church with a funeral, but she’d call back.

When Frances called, she told me this:

At the hospital, a social worker spent two days on the phone, trying to figure out how to get Olga back home to Canada. Finally, Olga said, “I’m a Catholic. Maybe someone at a parish could help.” The social worker called the hospital chaplain. The hospital chaplain called the local parish, St. Francis of Assisi.

At the parish, Frances the Pastoral Care Minister answered the phone, and late on a Wednesday afternoon, arrangements were made. Frances met Olga at the hospital at 6am on Thursday and they boarded a cabulance with Olga’s luggage and wheelchair. To the waterfront and the Victoria Clipper they went. The cab driver helped haul the luggage to the ticket counter. The boat personnel said, “Don’t worry. Whatever you need, we’ll do it.” Frances and Olga got on the boat and went to Victoria. Along the way, Olga talked about the people in her life. “She was so upbeat about everything!” Frances said.

Once in Victoria, a friend met Olga at dockside, collected the luggage and the wheelchair and set off for Nanaimo. Before she said goodbye, Olga gave Frances one hundred dollars and insisted she have a good time in Victoria. Frances took a bus to see the Butchart Gardens and had tea at the Empress Hotel, something she had long wanted to do. She was back on the boat at 6pm and returned to Seattle. That was October 10th.

Frances had been wondering how Olga was, had told the story to a number of people. She’d explained that Olga couldn’t pick up a phone and call, and she certainly couldn’t write a letter. But Saturday, Frances thought she really should write Olga a letter.

She wanted to know, “How is Olga? Do you know?” 

“She died at home last Saturday,” I said.

“Well, I guess she got my letter then!”

Olga died at home two weeks after she’d returned from the interrupted trip. She never got her cruise, but she was with a friend and she died quickly. She and Dave had talked about the slow death that can be part of ALS.

That hundred dollars that Olga gave Frances? Frances brought it home. She knew a better place for the money. St. Francis of Assisi parish has a sister parish in El Salvador that is rebuilding its church. Nine thousand dollars is a lot of money in that country. Olga’s hundred dollars will go a long way and her name will be among those who helped in the effort.

Late in the afternoon, I talked with the hospital chaplain who told me about the efforts of the social worker at the hospital. "Can I tell them what happened with Olga? So often we don't know what happens to people when they leave our care, and everyone remembers her."

On Wednesday, I went to talk with Dave again, to tell him I’d found the woman who had helped his wife. He met me with a big smile. “Have you heard the news?” I hadn’t.

The Canadian consulate had been working on his case. He was being released in a few hours and headed back to Canada. He’ll have to come back for a hearing later in November, but he was heading home in time for Olga’s funeral.

I told him about Frances and the boat trip and the $100 and the parish in El Salvador.

Dave chuckled at the loops of connection: his Confirmation name is Francis. The woman who helped his wife was named Frances and worked at St. Francis of Assisi parish. Just how big a two by four does one need?

Dave and Frances will be in touch.

Olga’s name will be included among the names of the dead this weekend at the Seattle parish. 

Now you know the story. Isn’t it good to know there are saints among us?

11 September 2013

A rerun

Here's my 9/11 remembrance from a couple of years ago.

And the prayer of Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, first casualty in NYC.

Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say; and
Keep me out of your way. AMEN.

26 July 2013

Go and read

There are wonderful things everywhere on the Internet these days. Take some time to read this reflection, which comes by way of a good blogging friend.

 The friend at midnight

14 June 2013

Another Shannon Worth Knowing

You're going to want to know Shannon Moroney. You won't like her story. It's pretty ugly all the way around. But you're going to want to know her.

I found her book at the library, one of those "oh what looks interesting?" sorts of rambles. It was on the New Books shelf. Maybe I picked it up because her name is Shannon.**

But to Shannon Moroney. Here's a link to her website. The basic story is there: a month after her marriage in 2005, her husband brutally assaulted two women. The aftermath is devastating. Shannon chronicles how his arrest affected her at work, among their friends, in the court system. There's not much support for family members of offenders. Shannon's book includes a critique of the Canadian justice system and it isn't a far stretch from the American system. But what I really want to recommend is her consideration of restorative justice: what it is, how it can be applied, why it is needed to hold people accountable and make healing possible.

It is a very tough book to read. It is well worth the effort.

**I've met all sorts of interesting Shannons in the last year or so--including another Shannon O'Donnell who is a travel writer. Both of us tried to get the domain name ShannonODonnell.com--but it's owned by a teenager whose dad just isn't willing to let it go... and then there's the local weather person on a local channel who is Shannon O'Donnell as well. People at the parish once teased me about having a second job: prison on the one hand, weather-guessing on the other. I pointed out that the camera is supposed to add ten pounds--clearly that wasn't ME because the camera would have been subtracting like crazy!

02 June 2013

Time Out!

I suppose it's a holdover from childhood. Time out. The "naughty chair." The classroom corner. We use all sorts of things to punish people for their bad behavior. If we're honest, much of that punishment aims to get "those people" out of our sight so we don't have to deal with them.

Recognize this? 

Did you have one of these in your house when you were growing up?

Here's the Puritan version of the Naughty Chair. 

Maybe you had a corner where you spent an impossible amount of time.

"Go to your room!" The words come in a flood of frustration. Nothing else is working, not the firm tone, not the raised voice, not the escalating emotions. Nothing. "Enough already! Go to your room!"

The response? Usually a verbal snarl and a door slammed so harshly that things break. The warring parties retreat to their own territory, muttering over the wrongs, reciting what will happen next, resolving some variation of "You'll be sorry."

"Time out" is a well-worn disciplinary tool. Depending on the expert, it's meant to provide a cooling-off time, or a reordering of strategies. Maybe there will be an acknowledgement of wrong-doing.

It isn't always that clear cut.

For some, "your room" is really a haven. It is a sanctuary, a safe place where the violence is at a distance. It is a buffer zone, a place apart from chaos and rage.

For others, "your room" means being set apart, isolated, "You're not worthy to be among the living."

Most childcare experts will tell you that simply sending a child to her room will not, in itself, create compliant behavior. You have to teach the child what she did wrong. You have to help him gain insight to the causes and consequences of his actions. You have to reassure her that her behavior, not her person, is objectionable. In the best of circumstances, that can happen.

But what happens when you are trying to adjust adult behavior?

We send people to jail and prison and call it "time out." We cross our fingers and hope those convicted will connect the dots and change their behavior.

 And the first prisons? The penitentiaries were meant to use the tool of penance, so an offender was given a room and a Bible and plenty of alone time. No talking. No contact with others. Most went stir crazy.

Prisons went on to a variety of models. How about making people eat and work lock-step, and chained to one another? Or live in a gym with dozens of bunkbeds and not much space? Practical questions have to be considered. When the number of offenders goes up, how do you manage them efficiently? safely? cost-effectively?

Even in prison, there are times when the frustration level reaches a point that someone says, "Enough! Go to your room!" and an inmate gets chained up and hauled off to segregation. He's locked in a small room with no movable parts beyond the button that flushes the toilet. He can't see out the window; it's frosted over. He can look out the door, but there's nothing to see except the officers who check him every half hour and shove the tray of food through the cuff port three times a day.

For an hour a day, she can "exercise" in the concrete yard, by herself, walking a groove into the floor. There's no one to talk to, except the voices in her head.

How long will he stay there? Your guess is as good as his. Sometimes a fixed amount of time, punishment of some specific behavior: ten days, thirty days. More often than not, the stay is indefinite. All that time in solitary and the inmate has to figure out just what behavior is required so he can go back to general population. Solitary confinement has a way of exacerbating mental illness.

Word came in May that Washington state is beginning to shift that approach, training those in solitary confinement how to manage their anger and avoid confrontation. They're beginning to work toward integrating offenders back into general population and from there, back to society. (97% of the people who are currently behind bars will be coming back to the community. What kind of mindset do you want them to have?) Here's the story in The Seattle Times.

Finally, one more thing to consider:

27 April 2013

I'm Thinking, I'm Thinking!

A month ago, at a jail chaplains meeting, a guest posed this question:

What of my culture do I have to give up in order to become a Christian?

I've been mulling it over ever since.

He made the point that we expect other people living in other cultures to give up what is regular and normal about their lives to more easily be identified with our own (American, Western) culture and so to be Christian.

Working at the jail, I spend time in a different culture. The language may be familiar and there are common references and experiences we share, but it's a very different culture. "How to be a Christian" changes when people come to jail.

And I'm wondering if my own life should look different than it does because I choose to be a follower of Jesus.

What do I have to give up?

I don't have an answer yet. But I'm thinking about it.

31 March 2013

For Easter

Post Resurrection 101
Luke 24:13-35
Awash in grief
we fled Jerusalem,
dust of that place
clinging to us
even as we ran.
No words
tears only
making me blind
once again.
When the stranger met us
I resented him,
hated him.
Could he not see the grief?
Or was he blind too?
He asked for our story
and in sobs
we threw words at him
in hopes of seeing his tears.
He was pleasant
The rage of our grief
did not touch him.
He began quoting Scripture
line after line of stale
tired verses.
Did he not hear our grief?
For miles he ignored our weeping.
on the doorstep
of the familiar again
he finished with us and
turned to go.
My grief rose up
and captured him.
I dragged him inside the tomb
of our home.
Seated at our table
his memorized words
were useless.
We offered him our sorrow
on heaping plates.
He took them
at last.
He broke open before us
and rose again
fleeing the tomb.
He left us behind,
two messengers
blazing in the night.

~~Shannon O'Donnell

first published April 2001, National Catholic Reporter

28 March 2013

Holy Week in Jail

It's been a busy month both inside and outside the jail. There's a new pope. "Nice to see someone smiling for a change," an officer said.


 Then came the news that Pope Francis was headed to juvenile detention today for the washing of the feet.  That caused a flood of questions. Here's the story. As archbishop in Buenas Aires, Jorge Bergolio made a point of rolling up his sleeves and being a pastor face to face with the people. The stories come tumbling out.

So far, this is my favorite photo of him, sitting in the back of the chapel inside the guest house where he has chosen to live. He attends daily Mass with the people who work inside the Vatican, says a few words, eats in the dining room. This is not a man who is aloof and bound by custom. He wants to be around people. There is an example to be followed there and already it is spring.

04 March 2013

Education for Felons?

Someone's thinking about it. You can read the editorial in the Seattle Times here. The comments, at least so far, are your average knee-jerk reaction. 

Things to consider: 95% of people in prison will eventually be released to the community. Do you want them homeless? or capable of holding down a job, paying taxes, contributing to the general good?

The number of people in prison who do not have a high school diploma or GED is astronomical. Good education reform that keeps kids in school, educates them in a variety of ways, makes them excited about lifelong learning, that's something I can support.

28 February 2013

You must meet this man

His name is Avi Steinberg and he's brilliant.

And you have to read this book that he wrote.


Is that an amazing cover or what?? 
Made up of date stamps from the library.

He calls himself an "Accidental Prison Librarian." 
Every prison should have one.

More of him here: http://avisteinberg.com/

16 February 2013

It's Lent and no, you can't...

No, you can't go on a 40 day fast.
      If you miss more than nine meals, that's called a food strike and you go to the hole. That's solitary confinement and you're likely to have to wear that lovely suicide onesie.

No, you can't have a copy of the Bible (Good News edition, New American, The Message, New King James) and the Qu'ran and the Book of Mormon and the Upanishads.
     And since you didn't return my copy of Dante's Inferno, I'm not sending you Purgatario. 

No, you can't have The Purpose-Driven Life or The Shack or Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul. We are all out, just like we told you in our responses to your requests for the last six months.        
      These books have not magically appeared on our bookshelves for your Lenten convenience.

No, you can't keep consecrated hosts wrapped in tissue and stashed under your mattress.
      But because you did that, you'll no longer be allowed to receive communion from the eucharistic minister. She won't be visiting you again either, since we discovered that you are already meeting with the Catholic chaplain, the Episcopal chaplain, and a Protestant chaplain.

No, you can't have a rosary. They're not allowed here. You can have the prayers, and you have your fingers, but those beads can make a person slip and crack their head on the cement floor, so no, no rosary here.
       No, not even the one you made out of bread and toothpaste and colored with the red M&Ms.

 No, I can't meet with you twice a week for an hour-long bible study. There are over one thousand people in jail right now, plus staff. Your own pastor wouldn't have that kind of time.
     Besides, what makes you think I know that much about the bible that could hold your attention for two hours a week?

No, you can't give up meat on Fridays for Lent. No, even if you're Catholic.
      How do you know it's meat you're eating?
What can you do for Lent?
      How about fasting from gossip or bragging about your crime? How about fasting from complaining to your family that they don't write or come see you often enough?
      Eat what you're given with thanks and without complaint.
      See this map? Close your eyes, pick a spot, sign your name. You're responsible to pray for the people there for the next six weeks. 

      The pope is retiring in two weeks. Pray for him. Pray for the cardinals who will choose the next pope. Pray for the Church that we have the courage and the humility to follow Jesus in all things.

And if there's still room on your prayer list, pray for your cranky Catholic chaplain who needs to get over herself once and for all.    

PS: Want to find your own spot to pray for? Go to www.ptocheia.net/globe and spin the globe!



27 January 2013

Who'da Thunk It?

Okay, so you know that I sometimes have connections with the people I see in the jail. The guy who had the accent that sounded familiar? Turns out he was from New Orleans' Ninth Ward where I spent two years teaching back in the 1980s. We spent an hour talking about the neighborhood. He hadn't been back since before Katrina.

I ran into a few people at the prison who'd used the food bank at the parish where I worked in Tacoma in the 90s, though none admitted to being the guy who peed on the wall of the building across the parking lot from my window.

At the prison, I knew a man who'd lived in the town where I grew up in California. We lived there in different decades, but still, I don't run into people from that town. Ever.

And then there's this. I wrote a book about my mom and Alzheimer's. It's mostly stories about the last ten years since she moved to Washington. There are some stories about growing up, but I kept the focus on the last decade. Threw in some family pictures. The response from my family has been fun. Some of them hadn't known I was writing a book. Some had read earlier versions. But it's finally out there.

I got a phone call from a guy who's out of prison now, working hard to get his life on track. The woman he lives with brought home a copy of the book and he picked it up. Then he called me and said, "Hey, I worked at a liquor store with your brother back in California." He recognized my brother from the photo section. Yeah, that guy, the one who lived in that same town as I did, decades apart. 

As if I needed any further notice from the Universe that it is a very small world.

Interested in the book? Here's the Amazon page.

10 January 2013

Is There Room on Your Prayer List?

It is "going to court" time for a number of offenders that I have been seeing almost weekly. Some are going for bail hearings after spending months in jail. Others have decided to "take the deal" but don't know if that is going to mean drug treatment or five years in prison. If jail weren't stressful enough, the unknown that court brings ratchets everything thing up.

And it isn't just the offenders who are feeling the tension. Start with victim families who mostly do not want someone who has hurt them to be out on the streets again.

Add the offenders' families who have adjusted to being the family of THAT person.

Throw in the prosecutors who are working to keep the city a quieter place (and maybe trying to keep the win category full).

And the defense attorneys, especially the public defenders, who often have too many cases and few clients who think they're doing an adequate job.

And the corrections officers who are staring at not just empty beds, but whole wings that have been shut down for lack of offenders. They've been wondering about their jobs. 

And then it might snow this week.

And the Seahawks are in the playoffs. Maybe that's a good thing, a bit of a distraction before all those court dates next week.

Pray for all of us.  

01 January 2013

There Are Circles and Then There Are Circles

"God's heart is the first to break."

This is a constant refrain in my life and in my work. It is my response to those who say, "It's God's will" when it clearly isn't. "God needed another angel in heaven when your child died." "God called him home." 

I picture God sitting in the mud and rain, howling with grief at the death of another beloved child, no matter the age. 

Unlike so many other bits and pieces stuck in my memory, I remember where I heard this line, and I remember the story that it was part of. It was a TV show, short-lived, now nameless, but a man told a priest about the death of his wife, a journalist who died in a bombing in the Middle East. He raged about the absence of God.

The priest didn't have any words for him in the moment, but days later came back to him and said, "When your wife died, God's heart was the first to break."

This Christmas I read Michael Gerson's column from the Washington Post, an eloquent reflection on the tension of joy and sorrow this year. With the events at Newtown not even two weeks past, he spoke of another parent who'd lost a child. William Sloane Coffin was pastor at Riverside Church in New York. In 1983, his son Alex was killed in a car accident. In a sermon he preached ten days later, Coffin said, "My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break." Read Coffin's sermon here.

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. 1924-2006

Coffin was a major figure in the peace movement in the States.  I have no doubt that he did what he did because he knew something of God's own broken heart. 

I find it fitting somehow that, after all these years, I would finally discover the source of the quote that has stitched its way into my ministry. I have some things to read and learn in this new year.